The following article was originally published in Challenge Magazine, the official organ of the Young Communist League of Britain (UCL), under the title "Seventy years of hurt", on the occasion of Queen Elizabeth II's 70th anniversary since her ascension to the throne.
By James Meechan*
Armed constables amass in Westminster; police drones and helicopters flutter in the skies; Her Majesty’s homeless subjects are cleared from the streets. Tom Cruise takes a moment out of promoting Top Gun: Maverick to gurn through a televised royal circus show. The bunting flies resplendently above emaciated high streets. ‘Midst the worst immiseration in 40 years, there’s momentous pomp, procession, and pageantry — the platinum motherfucking jubilee.
It is only ‘sensible’ and ‘proper’ for me to put aside the rhetoric, and extend my most jubilant congratulations to The Queen on Her reign of 70 obsolescent years — an astounding achievement when one remembers Britain’s monarchy died three centuries hitherto her coronation.
I know, I sound preposterous. Hear me out. Obviously, the United Kingdom has a Queen and her royal family, presently reclining in opulent palaces. There is the ‘royal’ adjunct on the navy, the air force; ‘Her Majesty’s’ prisons. All the regal paraphernalia is there — a pall draped on our terminally neoliberal realm, like a tacky mediaeval theme park built from food banks and student debt. But nothing you could compare to Aristotle’s monarchy, his eidolon of the “rule of one”.
The Queen may sit on the throne, the national anthem might be about her, her likeness may be branded on the currency, but capital has long been l’éminence grise of Britain before her ancestors even arrived from Hannover.
Governments exist to serve class, not individual, interests. As the symbolic nucleus of the state, the royal family do not lord over, but rather grovel under, the ruling class. This farcical and anachronistic constitutional arrangement is the result of historic class relations that gave birth to British capitalism.
Just as in France, feudalism was violently usurped in one revolutionary moment, Blighty’s absolute monarchy died a century before la fin de Louis XVI, at the regicidal climax of the most brutal civil war in her history. As Karl Marx wrote, Cromwell’s English Commonwealth was established by:
“[The] enduring alliance between the bourgeoisie and a great part of the landowners, an alliance that constitutes the major difference between it and the French Revolution.”
Since our ruling class became a symbiosis of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy, their ideology equilibrated into the ‘constitutional monarchy’, a form of liberalism that tolerated some historic hangovers from feudalism. In contrast, the purely bourgeois revolution against the entire landowner class that occurred in France, fomented a republican version of liberalism, that would eventually dispense with all traces of feudalism in that society.
So, whilst the aristocratic landowner faction of Britain’s ruling class restored the king, their bourgeois partners understood the monarch would remain a ceremonial husk. Both sides concurred that the system of parliamentary factions was more robust of a management system, for the inchoate British capitalism — especially without the interference of self-aggrandising kings. The ‘monarch’ has remained de facto servant to the landowner and bourgeois classes to this day- a captive, rare specimen filling the constitutional void in the state seized from them.
The ruling class of Britain remains a vigorous, bourgeois-aristocrat hybrid, a rote caste of society. They matriculate through the Etonian agoge, cloister in their supercilious student coteries at Oxbridge, and share the coming-of-age ritual of burning a £50 note before a helot. They then mature to the intermingled syssitia of oligarchy — journalism, politics, finance, business, quangos and think-tanks- in the Most Loyal service of the true sovereign of Albion: capital.
But the royalty have languished for nearly four centuries, the de jure lynchpin of the entire political and legal system, and yet completely irrelevant to the working of the system in reality. In the mind of the average Joe, the Prime Minister leads the country; Parliament passes the laws; the devolved governments have separate mandates in their respective countries.
So, what does the Queen actually do?
Liberals will often accuse socialist societies like the Soviet Union of having perpetuated ‘totalitarian cults of personality’ — the argument being that, to maintain order in such ‘dystopian’ societies, the state compelled fearsome devotion for the individual leadership figures of the ruling party, such as Joseph Stalin.
The fact Stalin himself was a fierce critic of personality cults is predictably omitted by our illustrious critics, but that’s neither here nor there. Stalin’s distaste for what he considered sycophantic, ‘fanboy’ behaviour yielded some interesting thoughts on how ‘devotion’ to faliable individuals is a lazy substitute for genuine Marxist study. His critique was succinctly expressed as follows:
“The theory of “heroes” and the “crowd” is not a Bolshevik, but a Social-Revolutionary theory. The heroes make the people, transform them from a crowd into people, thus say the Social-Revolutionaries. The people make the heroes, thus reply the Bolsheviks to the Social-Revolutionaries.”
British capitalism is equipped with its own, stodgy, conservative form of the personality cult. The political class has this utterly mawkish reverence for the Queen and her ‘invaluable service’. On the surface, they are lauding her for superfluous feats of statecraft, such as conferring city status — as if neglected people in towns abandoned by capital will rejoice to finally live in a city, abandoned by capital.
But there is a real, ‘invaluable’ utility of the royal family, as an ideological weapon for the capitalist class. With every gormless speech, every trite publicity junket, every personal event like their children’s birth — in fact, even their conception — captured and disseminated across the airwaves and millions of pages of newsprint, they maintain a level of emotional investment from a fairly wide section of the British population.
Yes, as class-conscious socialists, we are impervious to this pantomime. But we must not dismiss the tremendous attachment many people feel for the royals, and by extension, the propagandistic value that can generate for the ruling class, undermining class consciousness and stabilising our increasingly deprived nation.
Britain’s royal family is a cult of sentimentality. Politicians can see their personal popularity come and go, forever at the whim of the four billionaire news moguls in control of our national news publications. But the exalted figure of the Queen remains, encapsulating all the emotional fecundity of an elderly, national matriarch.
It’s a perverse mutation of what Stalin critiqued. Every member of the royal family is the most parochial, twee, nauseating ‘hero’ conceivable. Instead of inspiring anyone to fight for a different society that serves the needs of working people, they stand as the cuddly mascots of the British neoliberalism, reassuring the masses that ‘everything is alright’.
In their role as public figures, they routinely yawn banal platitudes on the world’s topical issues — the maladies caused by capitalism, and extinguish all transformative discussion about them, perpetuating the fantasy that the only ‘solutions’ to the world’s crises are conveniently going to coexist with the profligacy of immense private wealth.
Whether it’s Prince William’s borderline Malthusian environmentalism, or Harry’s championing of ‘self-care’, the royal family’s ‘invaluable’ contribution to British society is the sum of their lives spent giving the most vacuous, the most disingenuous, the most offensively fatuous gestures and bromides, from positions of the most conspicuous opulence.
The Queen’s dignified façade has taken a disturbing aura, after paying a ransom of public funds to spare Prince Andrew from the indignity of a hopeless legal battle with an American commoner accusing him of sexual assault. This comes after her grandson and his wife became the first people in history to ‘leave’ the ‘the Firm’, alleging incredible-and totally believable- royal racism and personal abuse in a landmark public television interview.
Amidst the scandals of racism and sexual assault from within ‘the Firm’, the mighty Windsor PR machine appears to be weakening. Last year, Barbados became the latest former colony to abolish the role of the monarch, and become a republic. The long-term prospects for the royal family as an institution have never been so dismal.
The Johnson government received a tidal wave of vitriol over the #Partygate scandal. One detail to have emerged was that- before his appointment to deputy editor of The Sun- the Prime Minister’s former head of communications, James Slack, savoured the Saint Augur and Tattinger at his Downing Street leaving-do, in breach of the government’s own COVID-19 restrictions at the time. Whilst the duplicity of our political elite is as insulting as it is unsurprising, I wish to take a step back from that and focus on what this demonstrates about the ruling class.
Firstly, the fact representatives of the national press were honoured guests at a soirée held at the headquarters of the British bourgeoisie is fairly illustrative of the intermingled, incestuous relationship between politicians and journalists. Secondly, the session occurred on the eve of Prince Phillip’s funeral- apparently, a time of ‘National Mourning’- and serves as a blunt reflection of the true status of the royal family.
That same media class feigning disgust at the disrespect shown towards the Queen at a time of bereavement, gleefully published photographs of Prince Harry, her grandson, with his crown jewels on full display, back in 2012. They effectively harangued him and his wife into exile last year. Their minion paparazzi, and I say this seriously, accosted his mother to her death in a Parisian tunnel.
Royal life and death, played out in the nation’s media, the closest any humans will be to actually living in The Truman Show. There is no privacy, no respite, no mercy from the sniveling tabloids, the leering cameramen. Let me be clear: I have zero sympathy for the situation of the royal family, but does what I describe evoke the status of the vitae necisque potestas, or a haggard dogsbody?
The House of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha has been calcified in sentimentality, reduced to an ostentatious procession of chinless twats to be gawked at. Ironically, the strongest, most dynamic torch-bearers for the royal family would probably be Harry and Meghan. They have absconded the baleful aura of Britannia, for sunnier lands and a friendlier press.
They’ve rebranded. They’re a progressive young Silicon Valley family, who tell you your feelings are valid. They eat organic produce they bought at the non-GMO market, not pheasants they giddily shot on a dreich afternoon. They nobly raise awareness of mental health, they raise the sword against toxicity, and despite Harry almost certainly bombing Afghan shepherds during his military career, some outlets have the temerity to say they are remedying the legacy of British colonialism.
They are what the royal family would need to be in order to ingratiate itself with a younger, more socially conscious generation, whose celebrities meticulously hashtag all the right causes and amplify all the right marginalised voices.
But the cult of sentimentality is simply too arthritic, too entombed in tradition and stodge. Whether out of fear of the slobbering tabloids or sincere malice towards their own family members, they allowed the media class to prune them of two personalities that may have reinvigorated the royal family. The ancient institution fails to adapt, sliding headlong into the cold void of irrelevance.
The future of the royalty itself after the Queen passes looks inauspicious at best. At the very least, the next two kings are total charisma vacuums. They will appeal to an increasingly diminishing section of the public, and in turn, cultivate discussion about the relevance of the crown in the 21st century.
Obviously, a republican constitution for the British state is incrementally more democratic than the farcical monarchy we have now. Any socialist society, it goes without saying, cannot tolerate such a grotesque hangover of feudalism. We should support the abolition of the monarchy, once and for all, as an act of basic political hygiene. But we can’t hold onto some petulant belief, that such a superficial revision to the capitalist state will magically alter our lives for the better.
Whether our elected head-of-state is President Emma Watson, or David Attenborough or Ant and Dec, if we are going to have a ceremonial head-of-state then we might as well have some semblance of choice, and expect each candidate to earn our vote.
The major argument against the royal family is that having a head-of-state, even a purely ceremonial one, be a hereditary role is totally antithetical to the concept of democracy. This is absolutely, 100 percent true. But you can’t call Britain a free, democratic society if we abolish the monarchy, but spare the plutocratic prerogatives- the billionaire-controlled mass media, lobbies, think-tanks.
These institutions hold far more sway over our society than the decrepit monarchy and don’t even pretend to have a mandate- popular or divine- for the immense power they wield. These lords of capital have the de facto powers to influence how our economy is run, who wins an election, whether or not we go to war.
Ultimately, any constitution formulated by the capitalist class will enshrine the iniquity, exploitation and immiseration inherent to capitalism, whether there is a hereditary head-of-state or an elected one. The only republics unfettered by this, and which built tangibly democratic states that protect the rights and livelihoods of ordinary people, are socialist societies- Cuba for just one example.
I will however, pour my heart and soul into the hope that, with the inevitable end of the monarchy, perhaps we may see a rejoiceful end to the mawkish cult of sentimentality. Now, that would genuinely merit celebration. Presidents come and go; they aren’t sedentary enough for the stoor and cobwebs to accumulate.
The civil servants and accountants tasked with liquidating the crown’s assets back into the public purse start ripping the copper wire out of Buckingham Palace; start selling the family’s Agincourt mementos to some liver-spotted collectors.
One day, I’ll take my children to the royal landfills, to marvel at the spectacular mountain of surplus commemorative crockery. At the base of the mountain, a solitary pedestal for historical posterity. On the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
* Member of the YCL’s Glasgow branch.